The Knickerbocker Blizzard of 1922
From the Season3: Episode 15: A Change in the Weather that just released, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Knickerbocker Blizzard. But I never want the episodes to get too long, so that's where Beyond the Bones comes in handy! So if you've got a moment... here's the rest of the story from A Change in the Weather.
As with our other storms we talked about in the podcast episode, this one started in the south with the warmer Gulf Coast winds and then clashed with freezing temperatures aggressively coming down from the north.
The weather sources say it began as a dry storm, snow just whirling about, but it's when the two battle for control is when the trouble begins.
(Does anyone else conjure up the image of the Heat Miser and Cold Miser brothers from that Christmas stop animation classic? Just me? Nevermind... continue on... )
The result became a winter cyclone. A tornado of snow and it took its time wreaking havoc along the coast as it moved from Georgia all they way up to Pennsylvania.
The southern states weren't used to having much snow in the first place, but this storm would drop at least a foot of snow in a matter of 24 hours and it was just beginning.
By the time it hit Virginia, it dropped 19 inches of snow almost paralyzing the state. Cities like Baltimore, MD and Richmond, VA and even the Outer Banks, NC would document the complete shut down.
But it would seem, the worst hit was Washington, D.C.
It would report over 28 inches of snowfall. And even though the residents had been dealing with winter and snow the full week prior, no one was expecting this much damage from the snow. In fact, they believed the storm was winding down and were ready to get back to their lives.
The railroads eeked to a stop with over 30" of snow blocking their path with snowdrifts climbing to 16 feet high.
People were tired of being cooped up from the week's worth of snow, but as I mentioned, they believed it was slowing down... and technically it was?
So as the story goes, almost 1,000 people chose to brave the elements for a night of entertainment at the local movie house- The Knickerbocker.
The Knickerbocker Theatre opened to great fanfare on October 13, 1917.
It's was commissioned by Harry Crandall who was making a name for himself by opening a chain of movie houses in Washington, D.C. and in Virginia. He had commissioned Reginald Geere, who had himself made a name as the go-to for theatre design.
The Knickerbocker was designed to house 1,700 patrons and be a multi-use facility. It was the largest and most elegant facility of its kind in the city. It could not only show movies on a large screen with a full orchestra in front, (because, we're still in the silent film days), but it could also be used as a lecture hall, a meeting house and had the set up to do stage productions as well.
Catering to a higher end clientele, Crandall also included elegant parlors and lounges for his guests and ballroom to create additional options.
With the days and days of snowfall, the roof of the Knickerbocker was holding a significant amount of weight and unbeknownst to the guests or the staff... it was about to reach its breaking point... literally.
With little to no warning, the roof collapsed onto the balcony and within minutes, brought everything down to the main floor crushing men, women and children on the main floor.
It all happened so quickly. It was just after 9:00 and the streets were dark. Many of the roads were still covered in snow making car travel difficult. Luckily, a woman heard the calamity and phoned the police.
The Washington Post's John Jay Daly would report, "With a roar, mighty as the crack of dawn, the massive roof of the theater broke loose from its steel moorings and crushed down on the heads of those in the balcony. He would say, "it was as sudden as turning off an electric light."
The telephone operator, who took the original call in turn put calls into the fire department and the local hospitals. Because of the loud crash, residents starting flooding the area doing their best to help. The fire engines were struggling to get to the area because of the roads and the ambulances were facing the same difficulty.
There were so many people rushing in to help, that it was actually becoming more of mess.
The Marines were called to the scene to try and make order from the chaos. And it's said that the military maneuvers were led by none other than Army Major George Patton.
The hundreds of people worked through the night to remove debris and large concrete sections of the roof and balcony, but by the next afternoon, little headway had been made.
Sidenote: Even through all the terror and workers, there were some, as there are with every single one of these disaster stories that come forward and remind us of out humanity and good nature.
In this story, several taxi cabs who were used to navigating the dangerous streets came forward to help get victims to hospitals.
Neighbors opened up their homes to serve as temporary lodging for the injured and for the workers to rest, and provided hot beverages and food. And there are stories of a little boy who would risk his life- every single time- to crawl into gaps left by the debris in order to take a drink of water to those whose voices could reach him.
Even the theatre's architect was on hand helping to pull victims out from under the rubble.
From the book The Knickerbocker Storm by Kevin Ambrose; he writes, ""Bodies were being carried out of the theater and they were laid down in rows on the snow-covered sidewalk, adjacent to the theater. The rescuer workers were using anything available to cover the victims, including coats, sheets, and blankets."
It took over twenty hours to unbury theatre-goers whose seats were under the balcony. They perished under double the weight.
President Warren G. Harding, sensing the depth of the tragedy, was moved to issue the following statement:
“I have experienced the same astounding shock and the same inexpressible sorrow which has come to all Washington, and which will be sympathetically felt throughout the land. If I knew aught to say to soften the sorrow of hundreds who are suddenly bereaved, if I could say a word to cheer the maimed suffering, I would gladly do it. The terrible tragedy, staged in the midst of the great storm, has deeply depressed all of us and left us wondering about the revolving fates.”
Reports would say that 93 people lost their lives that night, with others perishing from their injuries in the days following. Over 130 people were injured.
The Washington Post would write, "Joseph Wade Beal, the first violinist at the Knickerbocker, was among those in the theater, only five days after his marriage. He was crushed to death."
Others would tell the story of the honeymoon couple who were vacationing in the area were killed by the falling blocks of concrete.
A post found on Ancestry.com by Kathy Baker would recall the memory of a family member who was lost in the incident:
"Agnes was on a date. Her date was blown into the lobby and he survived. Agnes was covered in plaster and was originally listed as an unknown. She was identified by her brother, Charles Leo Mellon, from her clothing. Very sad occasion for the family and “Leo” would always cry when he thought of her. Leo was my grandfather."
Her date was a man named James. They were running late to get to the movie on time, but it had just started before they arrived. Without removing their coats, Agnes rushed to find them seats. James was only a few steps behind but that was enough to escape the falling roof.
The roof fell from side to side and the entire circumference of the seating area, but the roof over the lobby held. And when the roof fell, it's believed a gust of wind blew James further back to safety. He would never marry.
Following the incident, several queries were made trying to discover the cause as it was and still is considered one of the biggest disasters in Washington, D.C. history. It was initially blamed on faulty construction, but later it was narrowed down to a single support beam that has shifted from it's place of strength.
Many filed lawsuits for damages, as could be expected, but none were successful as no one could agree who was at fault.
The damage, however, was still done to Harry Crandall and Reginald Geare. They would not survive the aftermath of the disaster of the Knickerbocker.
Historian Jerry Wallace would write, "A coroner’s jury found that the theater victims had died because of faulty construction and design. A grand jury then indicted Geare and four others for manslaughter, but the charge was later quashed.
"Geare’s career as an architect collapsed along with Knickerbocker’s roof. The theater owner, Harry Crandall, once worth 6 million dollars and a major figure in the motion picture industry, lost his theaters and his wealth. Geare and Crandall were haunted by the disaster. This led both to their graves by suicide in gas-filled “self-execution chambers,” the former in August 1927, the latter, in February 1937."
Harry Crandall would leave behind a note asking that the reporters not be too harsh on his memory.
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